Through Sydney-based Canva, Melanie Perkins is making graphic design a simple, handy design tool for everyone.
by Aisiri Amin
We live in a time of infinite scrolling and if you have to get someone’s attention, you have to make it visually appealing and very simple. And graphic design is a boon for that. Numbers are boring but put it in colorful bars and pie-charts and you will make someone look, not just see. But not everyone can be a graphic designer or can they?
Melanie Perkins was 19 when she realised students never felt comfortable with graphic design, it was space that seemed alien to them. It was then that she along with co-founder Cliff Obrecht decided to start the journey of making design simple and accessible. They along with their technology co-founder Cameron Adams founded Canva in 2014.
Today, Canva is a multi-dollar company with more than 10 million users and Melanie Perkins, 30, is being appreciated as perhaps the youngest female CEO of a $1 billion startup. An inspiration to many and a pioneer in making graphic design a go-to tool, Melanie talks to INKLINE about democratising design, her incredible journey and how you’re never too young to bring about a change.
INKLINE: Canva just hit $1 billion! Congratulations on that! That is an incredible achievement. How has the journey been?
Melanie Perkins: Thanks! This new funding round is a great vote of confidence in our team and vision for Canva. At the end of the day, we’re still 100% focused and making headway on our mission of empowering everyone in the world to design anything and publish anywhere. Whether you are creating a presentation, social media graphic, marketing materials — we want to be the one-stop place that makes the whole design experience seamless.
That’s why I think of Canva as a baby unicorn; we still have so much more room to grow! We’ve only done 1% of what we believe is possible!
I: What was the motivation behind starting Canva? Why graphic design?
M: I came up with the idea for Canva when I was studying at university, and tutoring other students to use a standard design software. Even when designing something simple, it took the students a long time to feel remotely confident in using the platform.
I realised the future of design was going to be simpler, online and collaborative —that’s when the idea of Canva occurred to me. I was 19 when my co-founder, Cliff and I decided to test the idea by launching Fusion Books — an online design tool to help schools pull together their own designs for yearbooks. We started niche to prove that our new approach to design was possible and needed.
After it kept growing for a few years we decided we were ready to broaden it out and tackle the whole design space, and thus Canva was born.
I: You are being lauded as the youngest female CEO of a $1 billion startup. In a world where women are often trapped in gender stereotypes, this comes as an inspiration for many. What would you tell those women?
M: Looking at the statistics on startups that fail or the number of women CEOs who have raised venture capital, it’d probably scare anyone away from starting. But for me, if someone says something can’t be done, I consider that a darn good reason to give it a shot and make it happen.
If I had attributed success or failure to things I couldn’t control such as my gender, culture or ethnicity, I would not be empowered to do something to improve my chances of success. I direct all of my time and mental energy focusing on the things I can improve, new strategies,and people who support what we are doing and want to get onboard.
Building a startup is filled with challenges. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of rejections. Rejections from investors, rejections from potential team members, rejections from early customers — it’s simply a part of the experience.
When I was rejected, I worked on refining my strategy and improving my pitch deck — things that I can change. If I thought being female was the reason I was ever rejected from an investor or that someone didn’t join my team, it would have been very disempowering.
“Stats show what has been, not what should or will be.”
I: There are other graphic designing websites which are also quite popular. How do you create a distinctive difference between Canva and other graphic design websites?
M: Many of the workplace tools that have become staples over the last couple of decades no longer satisfy the needs of today’s workforce. Trying to put together a great design involved using a plethora of desktop-based tools and websites, and took a very long time. The dominant desktop publishing tools were developed before the internet was born and their core concepts remain the same today. We have had the opportunity to reimagine productivity tools from the ground up to cater to what everyone needs today.
Nowadays, the ability to communicate your ideas visually has never been more important. With the rise of social media, we’ve learned how powerful graphics are for communication, and the ability to create your own is increasingly becoming an important skill in almost every profession, from social media managers to salespeople.
I: A lot of people who use Canva have no knowledge about graphic design. How has Canva made it easier for those people to use the platform as per their needs?
M: Until recently, many people considered graphic design a niche skill set — however, the reality is that almost every single profession now has to create a lot more visual content. Hopefully we can become the platform that powers the modern workforce. Just recently we launched in 100 languages which brings us one step closer to making our product accessible to everyone.
I: The graphics created on Canva have great shareability. How big of a role do you think social media has played in boosting graphic design websites?
M: Through social media, we’ve learned how powerful graphics are for communication. Design is no longer a standalone function — every single professional needs design to help communicate their message, whether that’s online, print, or non-traditional media. In years gone by someone in sales could create a sales letter and now has to create a beautiful pitch deck to wins customers.
Non-profits have to create designs to spread their message and fundraise. Even the startup staple of business plans have been replaced by a beautiful graphic pitch deck. The world is rapidly becoming more visual, and design is becoming more and more important.
I: What is in store for the future?
M: There’s still so much we need to do to fulfil our vision of empowering the world to design! We plan on using the funds to expand our international growth efforts and continue expanding our core product to give everyone across the globe design superpowers. We currently have more than 10 million users, but there are more than 3 billion internet users worldwide!
I: What has been the most uplifting part of this journey?
M: One of the most rewarding and motivating things is the team we have built at Canva. Every day I get to work with super smart and kind people, all of whom have big dreams and plans for the company. Working with an exceptional team keeps me focused and striving.
I: Everyone hits a low point, especially when starting something new. What has been your biggest roadblock till now and how did you overcome it?
M: Getting Canva off the ground has been an uphill battle during our early years. It was difficult starting our first company, Fusion Books, and bootstrapping it to profitability, then it was difficult getting investors to show interest in Canva; it was difficult building a team, difficult to build our product. In fact, every stage has been an incredible challenge — but also an incredible adventure.
When we were raising investment, every time I left a pitch I would go through all of the factors that made the pitch successful or why I was rejected. When I was rejected, I would go home, revise my pitch, explain the market better, articulate the problem we were solving in more detail, spend more time explaining an aspect of our vision. I was persistent and determined to only spend my time on the things I could change.
I: If you could give one piece of advice to all the young aspiring entrepreneurs out there, what would it be?
M: When finding the initial problem you want to solve — it’s important to have a deep understanding of the problem. It was the particular insight I gained from watching people who knew nothing about design, struggling to use the design tools, that became the foundation for Canva. It became clear that the existing platform was complex, and beyond most people’s expertise.
But being able to use the tools myself, I knew the capabilities of using design tools to communicate and it occured to me that in the future, everyone would require design tools that were far more easier to use.
To sum up, there’s a great quote from startup investor and advisor, Paul Graham, that says “The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they’re something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realise are worth doing”. Other than that, don’t be afraid to get started. Dive in and start: you’ll learn a lot along the way!
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).